01 August 2017

There Is No Crying in Shooting

There is no crying on the range. We've all heard that take-off from the line in A League of Their Own. It's the tough girls' (and guys') battle cry to "harden the f up," "suck it up, buttercup," show no weakness.

And I don't think that's quite right. Tears show up on the range for good, even necessary, reasons, and we shouldn't deny or try to stop them all the time.

The work of learning how to shoot can be incredibly hard, both physically and mentally. Blisters, bruises, sore muscles, and more can turn up. Laughing off a gnarly brass burn is one thing when you've lost count of how many scars you've accumulated over the years, and certainly, every new shooter should be learning how to grit their teeth and carry on - safely, please! But at the end of the day? I can't judge how bad you hurt or were shocked or scared.

As for the mental aspects, shooting is an incredibly technique-heavy skill set. There's a lot to keep track of and do well. That's exhausting all on its own, and frustrating when things don't click as you're hoping and expecting. Or even worse, when you think you've finally gotten it, but realize you actually had it all wrong. For years maybe. Tears of exhaustion, frustration, even betrayal. It happens. And sometimes a good cry is what gets you past it to move forward.

Who hasn't shot a drill or stage that hasn't gone entirely to hell? If you haven't, I submit you haven't shot enough or pushed hard enough. When that happens, and it has or it will, again and again, sometimes it's easy to shake it off and try again. Sometimes, not so much. Leaking a few tears is okay. It's walking away and not coming back, or holding in that emotion and letting it screw you up more, that's more problematic.

A few years ago, I learned that a fundamental aspect of my marksmanship technique was quite likely the anchor causing a long plateau in my improvement. I had worked really hard to get right, but right...wasn't. I cried ugly tears the entire hour ride home from the range that night. Then got up in the morning to keep learning. Driving through the bumpy road to literally rewiring my brain with a better technique and everything that went with it was really hard. It took a lot of time and a lot of work. So yes, there were tears. But I got better.

More, guns are, for many of us, inextricably tied up with notions of self defense. We use guns to protect ourselves and our loved ones...but to do that, we must learn to value ourselves and find ourselves worthy. We may have to overcome fears about hurting others - the parent, child, sibling, partner attacking, or the innocent person caught up in the middle or who could become a friendly fire victim, or even straight fears about being able to manage the responsibility and power, physical and otherwise, of the gun. None of those are easy for everyone, and the process of arriving there can be immensely emotional.

Imagine if you were so terrified of shooting in defense that you could fight against tears or fight to pull the trigger. Cry, cry if you must. Imagine if nobody had ever told you that your life meant something, that your life was valuable. Imagine the floodgates of emotion that come with that becoming, then try to tell me those tears have no place on the range when they result in someone who now believes in their worthiness to fight for themselves.

Tears aren't weak. They aren't the end of the story. Sometimes, they're the beginning.

21 March 2017

Contextual Handgun: The Armed Parent/Guardian (AAR)

After action reports, AARs, for training classes are often written in the immediate aftermath, even before the student has finished unpacking and doing their laundry. I like to wait a little longer to let what I’ve just learned settle in my head a little, and so I can really pick out the details that make a particular class shine.

That strategy seemed especially appropriate for the class I took in early March 2017. The full name of the class is Contextual Handgun: The Armed Parent/Guardian (I’ll call it TAP/G here), and it’s taught by John Johnston and Melody Lauer of Citizens Defense Research. I attended the session hosted by John Murphy at FPF Training, in Culpeper, VA. It was my first time at FPF, and I’m hoping to be back for more in the future. It’s always a pleasure finding a new-to-me training range that’s easily accessible with good facilities and an organized host – thanks, John M.!

TAP/G is the first class developed and offered by Citizens Defense Research, and grew out of earlier work that Melody did with her groundbreaking Babywearing and Carrying class. As you might imagine from the name of the company, John and Melody are focused on what works for ordinary people toting guns – not law enforcement, not military, but an entirely different mission with more restrictive rules of engagement from both legal and ethical perspectives. That perspective is why I was interested in the class even though I don’t have kids and don’t spend a lot of time around them.

Turns out that the real key to the class material is in the first part of its name: Contextual Handgun. As introduced early in the classroom time that kicked off the weekend, the context in which we operate drives everything, whether it’s the mission, the gear, or the options available. In other words, we can’t find the best path to our goals unless we’ve identified and articulated them, and taken a look at the entire landscape between where we are now and where we’re trying to get to. The particular context for this class, the armed parent/guardian, was simply an application of the general framework that John and Melody emphasized throughout the class.

The lecture we started out with on day one was an excellent overview of the concept of contextualizing self-defense when children of all ages are in the mix, with application for anyone who might face a self-defense encounter when others are present. John and Melody also identified the goals of the class and contextualized (there’s that word again) the problems of self-defense where children are present into the concepts that are taught in more standard defensive pistol classes. While the material is covered in enough depth for someone completely new to the world of self-defense, it’s perhaps more appreciated by someone who already has a bit of a background and wants to understand how to expand and apply it.

After lunch, we braved the cold for an afternoon of reviewing and practicing the base skills needed to work with a pistol from concealment. The standards here were perhaps a bit tougher than I’ve seen in other classes, in preparation for day two’s shooting requirements, but were achievable by all students in our class, regardless of training background. I especially appreciated shooting a standard law enforcement qualification as the ending exercise for the day, to set a repeatable, objective baseline of shooting skill.

Day two of most defensive pistol classes generally get into the more difficult shooting problems faced by concealed carriers – the use of concealment garments, understanding cover, one-handed shooting, etc. TAP/G held true here by getting into more specific gun-handling knowledge and skills necessary when children are in the mix. The day started with a short additional lecture about aiming points, bridging the gap from fundamentals practice on less humanoid targets, and included a practical demonstration of why ammunition choice matters. Getting behind guns ourselves, we then learned how to manage kids of all ages, whether small enough to be carried or larger than the shooter, while maintaining a high level of performance downrange. Each skill built on one that we had practiced earlier, leaving us with some highly complex tasks that made clear why the day one fundamentals were so important to be able to perform reflexively.

The techniques taught largely fell into the “duh, why didn’t I think of that?” category: simple, easy to implement and remember, and highly effective. They weren’t obvious walking into the class, but now that I know them, I know I won’t forget them because they make so much sense. While geared towards people with children, I was able to immediately think of many applications of the same techniques in my own life. The tools for dealing with ‘big kids’ are, after all, not very different than you might consider for dealing with, well, big kid-like adults.

While we certainly worked hard on learning the relevant shooting skills, John and Melody also took the time to explain why each technique worked and when it would be most useful. As was hammered home all weekend, one of the key drivers for any self-defense is context both for deciding what to do at a certain point in time and for articulating that action at a later time. I found this particularly useful for some of the more potentially controversial solutions or ones that had a very narrow applicability.

Instead of providing “do this” pronouncements, TAP/G is a more nuanced class and requires an appropriately thoughtful approach to using a gun to defend yourself and others. Here, we faced not only the prospect of killing or dying in self-defense, but the consequences of being involved in or responding to an attack involving children and loved ones. Taking on the responsibility of wielding deadly force is and should be a weighty decision, and all the more so when you consider that you may have to choose the lesser of evils when defending more than one individual. TAP/G provides the background to help students think through those issues and the skills to apply their decisions.

The class was capped by the TAP/G qualification, based on the law enforcement qualification we shot at the end of day one but incorporating all of the new skills and techniques we learned in day two. I found it a useful review, reinforcing that I had indeed learned the skills enough to remember and use them. It also gave me a baseline of performance with my actual carry gear, so that I now objectively know how well I shoot with it when including the distractions that are part of managing a defensive shooting encounter with people I need to protect.

Because in the end, we return to the underlying theme of TAP/G, in what I hope to be a series of classes from Citizens Defense Research: do your skills, your gear, and your strategy fit the context?

12 October 2016

Every Girl Should Learn How to Shoot - Part 4 of 4

Read part 1, part 2, and part 3 first if you haven't already.

And as I said, I’ve found some of the best people in the world by being around firearms. It’s not all kittens and rainbows, but the best here really are the best. Let me share a little of my piece of the community with you.

At one of my local monthly matches, a regular competitor is a police officer who I have seen show up straight from his overnight shift to shoot with us. He told me that yeah, he was pretty tired, but he couldn’t let go the opportunity to shoot because the dangers of his job don’t wait for him to be fresh and wide awake. Some of why my friend comes is love of the game, but much of it is his dedication to honing a skill that he knows he needs to stay alive and do his job. And he’s not the only one.

By day, my coach is a law enforcement training officer. One of his current crop of recruits is pursuing her dream to become a police officer, but has been challenged by severe dyslexia combined with additional vision problems. She’s been working especially hard in training these past few months, including extra one-on-one training and spending hours of her own time practicing and visualizing. Last week, she made a breakthrough and jumped from the back of the class to the top. Because she didn’t give up, even when others were ready to suggest that she could do good for her community in other roles.

But many of us don’t need to practice shooting for our professions. While we might be interested in self-defense applications, a lot of us are ultimately out on the range for fun. Safety is always first, and competition is called that for a reason – wanting to win is a thing, and not a bad one. It’s not the only thing, however, and that common attitude leads to some of the greatest acts of individual generosity I’ve seen anywhere.

For instance, shooters have raised thousands and more for various causes close to our hearts. From the Salute to Valor 3 gun match that raised more than thirty thousand dollars for a selection of charities benefitting veterans across the United States to the many clubs that annually run food and toy drives for local families, shooters have formed a community that takes care of its own and others.

Shooters give on an even more micro level too. When I had an unexpected several-day layover in Los Angeles trying to get home in the middle of a snowstorm, a friend told me, “I’ve got friends down there! Let me ask them what you should do…” I had barely found a last-minute hotel for my stay by the time enough volunteers and gear had been offered to outfit both me and my husband to shoot a match the next day. What could have been a miserable few days in an airport hotel turned out to be more fun than I could have imagined.

One of the best parts of that side trip was following it up a few weeks later with an intended trip west to shoot Phoenix Handgunner, at the invitation of my friends Jaci and Jess. They put me up, fed me, and made me feel completely at home even though I knew about four people there (and they were half of them) and had never shot that match format before.

I was reminded of my earlier trips to A Girl and a Gun Club’s national conference with my friend Tracy, who also picked me up from the airport, drove me all over, and helped me navigate a whole new crowd and event. While I enjoyed meeting and spending time with other friends, new and old, during those events, those trips were particularly special to me because of those I spent the most time with.

The shenanigans I have with my shooting girlfriends are fun, but even better is how those trips are only crystallized moments of the support we provide to each other whether as shooters working to improve our skills, as women navigating a male-dominated industry, or in our lives off the range.

Most of my friends growing up were boys and like many of you, my circle shrank as I got older. In the gun community, I found not just men I’m proud to call friends, but women with whom I could form an instant bond. It’s not just that I’ve found friends with a common hobby, it’s all of the other things I’ve talked about this evening. I’m delighted to have discovered these confident, competent, thoughtful women with a take-no-prisoners attitude towards life. Like I said, it’s not all puppies and ice cream, but these gems are what makes it all worthwhile.

Every girl should learn how to shoot. She’ll get to meet some really cool people and make some lifelong friends.

Thank you for being another step on my journey, and I hope I’ve brought you some inspiration for your own. I know many of you have already started shooting but if you haven’t, I hear there are some good folks to learn from around here. And as you start putting more rounds downrange, I hope you, too, discover for yourself why every girl should learn how to shoot.

Every Girl Should Learn How to Shoot - Part 3 of 4

Read part 1 and part 2 first if you haven't already.

The complicated web of laws and rules relating to carry, the heavy responsibility of choosing a potentially lethal self-defense tool, the difficulty in finding a gun to carry, figuring out how to carry and conceal it, and getting confident enough to shoot it well were almost enough to make me swear off concealed carry. After all, I got into guns for fun and I thought I lived a pretty sheltered and secure life.

But much as I thought I could avoid “bad places” and “bad people”, it became increasingly clear to me that I could not always avoid them. During this time in my life, I worked in downtown Philadelphia at a job where leaving at 6 or 6:30 in the evening was considered early. Parking in that particular part of town was pretty slim, and the best option I could reliably use was about four blocks away, through an area that on one side more or less shut down in the evenings and on the other side hosted quite a bit of Philly's night life. The neighborhood was pretty good, but not unknown for muggings and other attacks. My employer was not large enough to offer escorts to parking. Oh, and I was taking night classes in North Philly.

You can easily see I’m not exactly in prime physical shape to fight off a larger, more physical attacker. What you can’t see are the many old injuries that I was still rehabbing and that made it difficult for me to run, not to mention the knee I blew right about that time.

I had a hard time getting that job, and I thought finishing my masters’ degree could help me find a better one but until then, I was stuck.  And I knew that all of the ninja hand-to-hand skills in the world wouldn’t do much against someone larger and stronger than me. Maybe my safe lifestyle wasn’t and couldn’t be as safe as I thought.

And maybe that little weekend hobby of mine really was the answer, especially since my employer was too small to even think about a gun policy. I knew I’d feel silly if I knew how to shoot and didn’t have a gun when I needed one, but now I started feeling like I really might need one. I figured that as difficult as getting comfortable with the laws and rules were, I was a smart cookie. I’d passed the bar. I could figure it out.

As for knowing someone might die because of my self-defense choices? It’s not something I look forward to, but I’ve come to believe that if I were involved in a fight with one winner, I’d want to do whatever it takes to come out on top. I’ve worked too hard to be who and what I am to let some criminal take that away from me. Victim selection is on them, not me. Consequences are on them, not me.

So all that was left was figuring out what to carry and how. Back then, there weren’t as many tiny guns on the market and I didn’t think I could conceal anything “big”, so I bought myself a cute little Kahr. A heavy leather gun belt and a long wait for a custom holster later, I had myself six rounds in a slim package, but very little knowledge in how to use it.

I mentioned earlier this evening that I took some basic classes early in my shooting career. That thankfully included some beginner defensive pistol instruction, where I learned how to safely draw a concealed gun from a holster, how to shoot around walls, how to shoot while moving, all sorts of cool stuff.

It didn’t take me very long, though, to realize that learning them once wasn’t a good way to know how to use those skills if I really needed them. Since the range we went to back then didn’t allow “action” shooting, I knew I had to find some way to practice.

One way I found was to take more classes. Even if they covered material I’d gotten from another instructor, hearing it over and over helped, not to mention all of the supervised shooting with immediate feedback. I still take a class or two every year to tune up my shooting and review and expand my related knowledge.

I also learned back then about the concept of dry fire, or practicing safely without live ammunition. At first, I used it just to learn how to run my gun: rack the slide, lock it back, insert magazines, things like that. A far cry from what my dry fire routine looks like these days, but it was the first step on the journey that’s taken me from barely able to hit the target to hammering up to six accurate, close-up shots in under a second...

...then having fun with pistol targets fifty yards away.

And finally, I learned about the wide world of competitive shooting. There, I could do all of the things I was learning in classes or might need to know for self-defense. It wasn’t really “practice” in that I could do the same thing over and over again until I perfected it, but it was something close and came with some real pressure.

While a match is just a game, your shooting is timed and scored, and there will often be people watching you. The results aren’t really important in the grand scheme of things and most of the audience is full of well-wishers, but they still add a little extra edge. And I won’t lie, I’m a little competitive. Having some numbers I could improve and some people to try to beat certainly helped drive my improvement.

It didn’t take long for competitive shooting, especially the action pistol sports, to become my passion and to change the course of my life. In the last few years, I’ve called competitive shooting and everything I did around it a second job, but it wasn’t really work. I loved everything about it: the people, the events, the gear, the practice.

I’ve been fortunate to meet some of my closest friends through the gun world, and have had the amazing opportunity to represent companies from as big as SIG Sauer and Lucas Oil to as small as PHLster and my local gun store, King Shooters Supply, as a sponsored shooter. I spend most weekends shooting or at a gun-related event, like this one, so much so that I actually quit my day job to develop and run a new indoor range near my home. It’s a scary ride so far, but I’m already much happier than I was in my prior career.

Every girl should learn how to shoot. In the process of learning to protect herself, she might also find herself.

Read on for part 4...

Every Girl Should Learn How to Shoot - Part 2 of 4

Read part 1 first if you haven't already.

As shooting became a more serious hobby, I became increasingly aware of the legal and political implications of my new weekend activity.

Although I was having so much fun shooting, I had to be discreet about gun ownership at work and among friends. Guns were, are, polarizing and have only become increasingly so in this post-Sandy Hook, post-Virginia Tech, post-Aurora, post-Orlando world. They are viewed by many as instruments of death and destruction, as weapons for murderers and terrorists.

Remember how I said I didn’t grow up with guns? Well, I did grow up in a community where guns were simply unremarkable. We knew enough hunters that venison wasn’t unusual, and there were definitely kids out of school on the first day of deer season. I’m sure we had friends or neighbors that owned guns, but nobody talked about them not out of shame, but because guns just weren’t really a topic of conversation in my semi-rural western New York world.

Then when I did start shooting, I was fresh out of the bubble that was studying for the bar exam, days in which I interacted with video lectures, workbooks, brownie sundaes, and sometimes even my husband. I was a little rusty at remembering what normal people were like, people who weren’t immersed in memorizing arcane facts and applying merciless logic all day. It just never occurred to me in the beginning that guns might be difficult or controversial.

I learned quickly.

See, I live near a state border and while the range we shot at was in the same state I lived in, the fast route was to go through another state and the convenient route for a little dinner or shopping after shooting was also through that state. If you’re familiar at all with traveling with guns, you can already spot the potential problems.

In my home state, I can only travel directly between home and range unless I have a license to carry firearms. That definitely means no dinner stops or errand-running after shooting a few boxes of ammo, but fortunately, the license is relatively easy to get. It does take some processing time and they called my references, but Pennsylvania is a “shall-issue” state, so if you can buy a gun you’re almost certainly going to be able to get the license too. That solved the “dinner and a lane rental” problem if I stayed on my side of the state line, but not the “shooting after shopping” problem if I wanted to head next door.

We don’t exactly have border crossings between PA and Delaware and my home and the range I shot at back then were both close to the line, so it’s easy to accidentally an interstate trip if you make a wrong turn, even if it wasn’t faster for me to go through Delaware and back to PA. I could legally do that if I locked up guns in the trunk and didn’t stop but hello? Shopping? I still liked it back then.

With my Pennsylvania permit, I could leave guns in the car all I liked as long as I stayed in PA, and only had to worry about my own comfort level with how well secured they were. Delaware, however, doesn’t recognize Pennsylvania licenses, and is a “may-issue” state and you might not be approved for a license even after publishing your name in newspaper notices. [Note: As of this posting, Delaware no longer allows any non-resident to receive a permit in any case.] The only other option was to find yet another state’s non-resident permit that would be accepted by Delaware.

That was the moment I realized how hard it could get to be a law-abiding gun owner.

And I hadn’t even gotten into thinking about using a gun for self-defense yet. I just wanted to be able to toss my .22 in the trunk and stop at the range after a trip to Home Depot. Law school hadn’t prepared me for the complexities of non-reciprocal licensing since in most every other area I’d studied, laws were generally either consistent across most of the US or could be bucketed into two or three variations. While there is a federal law that covers traveling between states, the details of staying legal once you’ve stopped somewhere can be drastically different from place to place.

And then I decided that if I knew how to point a gun and make a bullet hole appear where I wanted it to, I would feel kind of silly not being able to apply that skill in self-defense. And if I thought I was prepared to shoot someone in self-defense, then I would definitely feel silly if I didn’t actually have a gun with me if the need arose. Learning the technical part of carrying a gun, drawing from concealment, and all that was one thing….but learning all of the laws and all of their nuances? That definitely put the “Esquire” after my name to work because I sure didn’t want to become a criminal defendant.

Somewhere between trying to understand how a magazine in the same bag as a pistol made the gun loaded by law and why that really cute and easily handled short-barrel rifle I admired was classified as a restricted weapon, I began to appreciate the Second Amendment movement. It was a surprise to me, since I had never before considered myself political in any way, but the more I learned, the more I realized that a lot of the current laws, let alone at-the-time old ones like the federal Assault Weapons Ban really did more to trip up people who wanted to stay legal than anyone else.

I mean, if I found it difficult to untangle firearms regulations with a law degree, what was it like for everyone else?

Every girl should learn how to shoot. It will teach her that doing the right and legal thing isn’t always as easy as it looks, and that “common sense and common morality” aren’t always so obvious or correct.

Read on for part 3 and part 4...

Every Girl Should Learn How to Shoot - Part 1 of 4

In July, I was honored as the keynote speaker at the Women's Concealed Carry Fashion Show in Columbia County, NY. I went through my history as a shooter in order to figure out what I wanted to share with the audience, then realized that my journey was the story. And this is how my journey started:

Every girl should learn how to shoot.

That’s where I started my firearms journey almost ten years ago.

Guns weren’t forbidden by my parents when I was growing up, but they just weren’t a thing and I never prioritized opportunities to learn about them.

Still, I felt that shooting was the sort of life skill I needed, just like being able to change a flat on my car. Being a prime customer for road hazard insurance, I had to pick up on how to change a tire…though I’m definitely not ashamed to accept help and generally be useless on the side of the road as I was for both flat tires I’ve had this year.

That’s not where I ended up with guns.

When my husband, Mark, went to a local gun range with his coworkers as part of teambuilding activity, I remembered how much I’d wanted to learn how to shoot as a little girl, and a few weeks later, I shot a real gun for the first time, at an indoor range attached to a popular local gun store.

The gun store attached to the range seemed big and filled with all sorts of mysterious things. You could just walk up to the counter, hand over your ID and cash, pick a gun out of the rental case to shoot, and go right out onto the range. The range was loud and smoky and a little scary, and there were no instructors. I don’t remember much, except that I didn’t really have any idea of what I was doing. After getting the gun loaded, pointing it downrange, and pulling the trigger the first time though?

I fell in love.

Tonight, I’d like to tell you the story of my firearms journey and share with you some of the lessons I’ve learned since I fired those first shots.

In the beginning, shooting was a way to spend time with my husband. We were newlyweds and since I wasn’t long out of school, we hadn’t yet settled into a mutual hobby…something fun we could do together.

Going to the range and shooting a box or two of ammo, followed by a meal or a little shopping, ended up being a perfect low-key date for the two of us, especially back when ammo was a lot cheaper!

We were self-taught back then, but once we started taking classes, we discovered how much there was to learn. And learn I did: basic pistol, defensive shooting, hunter safety, skeet shooting, tactical rifle, competitive shooting. You name it, I was game for it.

I discovered something about myself in those days. Even though I wasn’t very good at shooting, or very good at anything mechanical at all, I could learn. It didn’t come quickly or naturally to me, but I learned to clean my own guns, then maintain them, and now do my own armorer-level work. I do still send the complicated stuff to my gunsmith though!

And while I didn’t have too much trouble hitting paper at the range as a new shooter, I wasn’t quite so successful at anything more complicated.

That was from the beginning of my first full season of USPSA. I had already been shooting IDPA matches for years, and was about five years into gun ownership. I’m not kidding when I say I struggled.

It took a lot of training and a lot of practice, but that’s changed. Even though I used to come in last place all the time at my first competitive shooting matches, that’s no longer the case.

Since I started competing about six years ago, I’ve become a top competitor in my region. At local matches, it’s becoming normal for me to come in the top five or ten in my division and I’ve even won a time or two. In the last year, I’ve had four top-ten stage finishes in major matches. It’s not just my finishes, though: objective measures of my performance are going up. I’m faster and more accurate with a gun than I’ve ever been, and my numbers show it. While I’m not sure I could have found my gun in its holster in one second in the early days, I can now draw and fire an accurate round on target in less than that.

I don't tell you this to brag on my accomplishments, though I am pretty proud of them. I tell you because I was the worst shooter ever when I started and I got here by taking classes, practicing hard, and not losing faith that I could improve. You can get here too.

My improvement and increased confidence in competitive shooting isn’t all, though. I’m also far more confident with guns in all situations now, whether it’s carrying a gun wherever legally allowed, being the only girl in a class or a gun store, or shooting something I never have before.

For that matter, I’m more confident now period. Knowing that I could do all these things with a new and overwhelming tool like a gun helped make me more fearless in trying and mastering other new and overwhelming things.

After all, if I could learn how to operate and shoot guns, how could any home improvement puzzle be beyond me?

If I could travel solo to a new range and compete against people I’d never met before, how could any presentation at the office be scary?

If I could calmly handle an angry and unsafe shooter while acting as a range officer, what vendor or contractor could unsettle me?

Every girl should learn how to shoot. It’s one of the biggest confidence builders in the world, on the range and off.

Read on for part 2, part 3, and part 4...

05 May 2016

Things I Learned in Gun School - Advanced Competition Pistol with Op Spec Training

One of the most transformative experiences in my shooting career was taking Practical Fundamentals with Operation Specific Training. I’ve been fortunate to have been part of some really excellent classes over the years, but the lightbulbs that clicked on for me in Practical Fundamentals changed the most basic ways in which I thought about the problem of shooting a pistol well: trigger management. Other classes taught me a lot about how to address the more macro problems in practical shooting and gave me a strong grounding in the sport, but Practical Fundamentals addressed some of the micro problems that were preventing me from advancing no matter how much work I put in.

Recently, I was able to follow Practical Fundamentals up with an Advanced Competition Pistol class taught by Bruce Gray, also through Op Spec Training. Bruce and the Op Spec crew are friends and sponsors of mine, but that wasn’t what led me to take these classes. In fact, it was the other way around. In my pursuit for excellence in marksmanship, I’ve been doing my best to hang around the best and have been fortunate to become friends with many of them.

Advanced classes are always a tricky topic: what makes them "advanced"? I consider being really good at shooting as essentially being able to perform the fundamentals more consistently under more pressure. This class was “advanced”, then, in that it assumed a grasp of fundamental trigger control and instead of spending the time solidifying what great trigger management looks like in isolation, it explored the application of time, distance, and other performance pressures both from a psychological standpoint and a practical perspective.

There is a great deal of sports literature that discusses how the conscious and subconscious mind influences performances. The classic work is With Winning in Mind by Lanny Bassham, an Olympic Gold Medalist in International Rifle. I’m partial to The Inner Game of Tennis by Timothy Gallwey, actually recommended to me by Bruce himself. Essentially, the theory is that after a certain amount of training, a person’s subconscious mind is able to perform to a high standard, but that the intrusion of conscious thought and concern gets in the way of that performance.

Many strategies have been put forth on how to train the conscious mind or otherwise encourage it to be less interested in attempting to control physical performance. Some of them are purely cerebral in the sense of beliefs to be internalized. Some are more practical in how they direct specific physical actions or conditions to focus on. We covered both types in Advanced Competition Pistol.

On the mental “brain” game side, we spent quite a bit of time discussing concepts like faith, attention to process, and the tension between being reactive and proactive.

When I’m behind a gun at a match or otherwise ‘when it matters’, I, like many shooters, start doubting my ability to be as good as I want to be. I start literally grabbing at every little thing I think might help me be faster or more accurate and try to make sure right away that I’ve done what I needed to so that I can fix it right then if not. The results are somewhat predictable: I’m slower and less accurate as I try harder and harder.

In class, this problem was identified as a lack of faith: faith that my sight picture and alignment is acceptable, faith that my ability to press a trigger and handle a gun is sufficient…probably about the only faith I don’t completely lack is faith that my gun will perform. Naming a problem is a good start to fixing it, fortunately, and for the particular areas that I doubt the most, rounds downrange is one of best ways to internalize that I am and have enough. I got plenty of both with this class.

While I don’t generally believe that extremely high round count practice is a very productive way to spend time and ammunition, it ended up being useful for me when paired specifically with the concept of solidifying my faith in my shooting skills and some of the physical techniques that can help maintain that faith, like the ones I’ll talk about a little later. After repetitively shooting difficult drills not just successfully, but in a state of mind where I was able to identify imperfections from behind the gun, I now know much more innately that I am enough, that I have enough skill to meet my goals.

My self-images are beginning to merge now, so that what I know about how others see me, with all of my flaws and my potential, the “me” I secretly and not-so-secretly aspire to, and the imperfect but improving individual I see in the mirror are starting to look more and more alike. That’s a direct result of beginning the process of getting more directly on the path of giving my conscious mind faith in the ability of my unconscious competence.

Part of creating that bridge of faith is focusing on process. Instead of trying to directly mash together who I am and who I want to be, keying on to doing the work and really staying on that bridge, rather than looking behind or ahead, is really important. Staying engaged in process is one of the most reliable ways to keep the conscious mind busy without interfering with the subconscious. Therefore, we spent quite a bit of time in class speaking to what the process of shooting really looks like and what fundamental elements to concentrate on.

Another part is to make the shift from shooting reactively to shooting proactively. In other words, instead of acting out of fear, anxiety, or worry (about missing, or otherwise screwing up), and allowing yourself to feel tense or rushed, you take a leap off the cliff of proactivity and attack the shooting problem. It’s a little terrifying in the same way that crowdsurfing or riding a rollercoaster can be, but it’s also exhilarating, fun, even joyful to let go and allow yourself to fly and trust that you will land safely. It’s really hard, especially for us overthinking, analytical, risk-averse types. But oh, it’s so beautiful when you do.

On the more practical, physical side, we worked on visual patience and were led to what Bruce considers the universal answer: prep harder. Range exercises including the bump drill, dot drills, Bill and Triple Bill drills, transition drills, and strings of steel targets.

In Bruce’s paradigm, there are two fundamentals of pistol shooting: trigger control and sight alignment, with trigger being paramount. Other elements of technique like grip and stance are adjuncts to making it possible to perform these fundamentals more consistently and perfectly.

Good trigger control is the ability to press the trigger to the rear without disturbing the sights. Seems simple when put that way, but there is a lot that can get in the way of being able to do so successfully. As I already said, the answer is to “prep harder”, but what does that mean?

The concept of prepping a trigger is to exert ever-increasing pressure on the trigger to the pressure wall, to and through the point it breaks and the shot fires. Ideally, no more pressure is used than the minimum necessary to move through the break, and as a function of recoil after following through completely, the finger releases past the trigger’s reset point then begins to exert that pressure again with the goal of being up against the wall by the time the sights have settled. The bump drill, where the shooter ‘bumps’ against the trigger with repeated presses on the trigger that increase in weight minutely each time until the gun fires, is an important tool to learn this skill.

Prepping harder means continuing to increase pressure on the trigger at the wall, an intensely process-oriented technique that is focused on the preparation to fire the gun rather than the end goal of actually firing. The physical feeling of prepping the trigger is part of what anchors the conscious mind and busies it from distracting from subconscious performance.

For me, continuing to prep and prep and prep is what I need to do in order to avoid the most common flaw in my trigger control, which is mashing at the trigger and trying to make the gun fire as soon as I see what I perceive as a good sight picture. That particular strategy doesn’t work very well because it almost inevitably results in a trigger press that paradoxically disturbs the sights enough to send the bullet away from its intended point of impact. Instead, if I just prep harder as I see what I need to see, and have faith in the process of prepping, then my shot lands where I wanted it to go.

The question then, is how I as the shooter can know that I’ve seen what I need to see and can trust that what I’ve seen is enough – that is, how can I develop visual patience?

The first step is to consider the boundaries of what must be seen and processed in order to successfully shoot the intended target zone. How steady does the sight picture need to be? How well do the sights need to be aligned with each other and with the target?

No human can hold a gun perfectly still. There is always some degree of wobble, but with a good grip and stance, that wobble is relatively small as compared to the size of most targets, even targets we might perceive as “far” or “hard”. Instead of looking for perfection, the shooter must accept the wobble and understand that the singular micro-moment of perfection is a misconception.

Trying to “catch” that moment is a major cause of degraded trigger control. Instead, the shooter needs to have faith (there’s that word again) in the wobble and in the fact that excellent trigger control through the wobble will result in the shot landing at the point of aim. Here again, the answer to the wobble is “prep harder”.

The need to trust the wobble and the ability of the prep to result in the desired shot was illustrated in class by shooting a dot drill with a number of tiny dots shot in sequence from just a few yards away. The dots were small enough that the sights felt like they were wandering on and off them all the time. But prepping harder resulted in holes punching through the dots time after time. The principle is applicable to larger targets further away that appear the same as those tiny dots behind the sights. I didn’t find it extremely difficult to shoot the tiny dots up close, and doing so not long before shooting 30+ yard plates that looked the same helped drive home the fact that if I can shoot small groups up close (and I can!), then I can shoot anything I can see.

The extension of the wobble is the idea of how much a shooter needs to let the sights settle after firing one shot or after moving into position, before firing the next shot. The temptation for me has always been to get another really solid, stable, perfect sight picture again. But if my sights have slowed down enough to be within what I would have considered part of the wobble zone normally, then that should be enough for me to continue prepping the trigger harder and allowing the shot to fire. I don’t need to wait. Shooting Bill drills and other drills that put a lot of shots on a target were used in class to illustrate that if the sights were observed with acceptable alignment and placement, then shots can be fired as fast as the shooter can continue prepping the trigger.

I’ve known from other classes and other drills that the ideal “equal height, equal light” sight alignment is not actually necessary for close-up, wide-open targets so long as there is some definable relationship between the front sight and the rear sight notch. I’ve even known intellectually that “close-up” and “wide-open” are elastic terms with meanings that change between shooters and under different circumstances. What I’ve been struggling with is how to expand my definitions so that I become less concerned with waiting for perfect sight alignment before I fire a shot.

Similarly, I know that my P320 is mechanically capable of shooting ridiculously small groups. Even if my aim is a bit off, the gun’s ability to maintain tight groups means I have quite a bit of forgiveness to still land a shot where I need to on most targets because I can rely on the gun to not throw the shot wild. Combined with the fact that Bruce reminded us of this weekend – that our trained subconscious knows how to put the sights where they need to go on the target – I should trust my body’s ability to know when my sights are in the right place.

This spot is where I need to sidetrack into another area I've been working on for the last few months with Yong Lee: the concept of target focus. Traditionally, marksmanship is taught with a hard visual focus on the front sight of a pistol, leaving the rear sight and the target itself a blur. The theory behind target focus is that the target should be the clearest to the eye while the front and rear sights are blurs to be referenced for alignment and to confirm that the gun is correctly aimed at the target. Among other benefits, I’ve found that target focus has allowed me to accept less perfection in my sights because I’m not trying to make my front sight look perfect.

Part of learning target focus for me has included significant dry fire time practicing getting my gun and sights up to a specific spot on the target. I do so with target focus, and since I have time in dry fire, can confirm by focusing on my front sight to make sure everything is lined up like I’m used to with front sight focus. Through this conscious process, I’ve been able to train my body to put my sights in exactly the right place every time.

By applying the target focus skills I’ve been working so hard in dry fire with the live fire exercises in Advanced Competition Pistol, I was able to make the transition to believing that my subconscious had learned what I was trying to teach it. In drills requiring reloads or transitions between targets, using target focus to observe my targets and my sight-blurs, and deciding to trust my subconscious to know when the blurs were lined up, I was able to shoot lots of Alphas and make lots of hits on steel. Live fire confirms dry fire, but it’s rarely been so dramatic for me.

I return full circle now to the concept of visual patience, the idea of waiting until the sights have given us acceptable feedback before we fire the next shot. The obvious prerequisite is that the shooter has to actually watch the sights. Along with giving attention to the feel of prepping the trigger, proactive engagement in observing the sights keeps the conscious mind from interfering with the subconscious mind that knows how to perform and allows the conscious mind to feed the necessary input into the subconscious mind so that it knows what to perform. It’s important not to try to direct what is seen but rather to simply see what the eyes pick up – a subtle, but vital, distinction that underlies visual patience.

When the subconscious is satisfied with what it observes both visually and by feel, then it will perform so long as there is no interference. Learning how to feed my subconscious and let it do its thing to solve the problem of marksmanship in the midst of increasingly complicated tasks, like 18-round, multiple target drills with reloads or ever-changing small steel stages (each with targets past 30 yards), and with the pressure of other students on the line at the same time or watching you…that’s what Advanced Competition Pistol brought me.